Review: A Foreign Country

A Foreign Country
A Foreign Country by Charles Cumming
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There’s no doubt this is better, much better than the last one of his I read (A Spy By Nature). More coherent, more interesting and without a middle section that sagged like…well, my middle section.

But…there’s a but. Well, it’s labeled a thriller, but it most certainly isn’t. A thriller. Not what I’d call a thriller anyway. It is mostly mildly, to quite interesting and there are a couple of incidents which do come within binocular distance of thrilling. Though when the main man’s attempt to have a hotel night porter distracted by some retired, bit-part spy helpers, long enough so he can check the hotel’s computer register is the most thrilling part of the first 176 pages, you begin to wonder if I haven’t been working from a different dictionary definition for ‘thriller’ all these years. Maybe I’m calling for a new way of determining if a book is a thriller or not, the thrill percentage in a Charles Cumming book is far to low for it to be labeled a thriller, in my book. The interest evel is ok, but not more than mildly diverting.

And another area where the PR people could once again probably be described as being a little too over enthusiastic, is in the comparisons appearing on the book jacket. Sticking John Le Carre’s name on there somewhere will always sell books. Even if it isn’t written by the great man. And even, as here, you’re sticking the name of perhaps his most well known/loved character on the back, it probably still works. Which is why they’ve done it. And I suppose you can’t blame Harper Collins for highlighting the reviews that bandy Le Carre about. But, and as I noted in my review for his previous one, I think they must have read a different book to the one I read. And le Carre fans, of whatever era, are going to be disappointed and wondering if the ‘Smiley’ mentioned, isn’t actually the name of the neighbours’ dog (as ours’ is).

The thrills, such as they are, are in the first half, and based on the anticipation that comes with the feeling that ‘now…this is going somewhere…’ But are ultimately they’re not there – the thrills – because the book doesn’t get there. Either where you want it to, or where it should. But I’m not wanting to be too negative, as – amazingly enough – there are good parts.

The book actually delivers in part on its reviewers promise mostly in the second half. It is almost tense and mostly exciting, it is about an operation carried out maybe in a more modern style than Le Carre and Smiley’s heyday, but in the same ballpark. It doesn’t include any giant explosions and international incidents – even though it involves the old enemies of official UK secret services and their French counterparts, it’s all stuff that could be swept under the carpet, officially denied and life got on with in an air of mutual distrust even hatred (if you want to look at it as reflecting the real world). So no change there then. The final action is good enough and is well-handled. Maybe it all goes a little too smoothly, and I thought it could have been, if not should have been, expanded by 50 or so pages. It felt a little like ‘ok, we’ll do this and that, they’ll obviously do that and this’, let’s go – and it all happened the way it had been explained as a plan so there wasn’t the need to go into the detail that an Eric Van Lustbader would have. It all felt like Cumming had had the idea for his next book and wanted to get this one done with and out of the way so he could get on with that.

The main man, Kell, despite the daft name, is an interesting character. Cumming has hinted at some baggage there and I’d like to see him in other stories. He reminds me a little of Jeremy Dunns‘Paul Dark’, maybe a little more ordinary (he’s never going to be in charge at SIS for example, is our Kell), though as I don’t know where A Foreign Country fits in Cummings’ great scheme of things, I don’t know if I’ll meet him again.

All in all an ok to good read and I can recommend it more than the last one. Still not up with where the reviewers seem to have been with it, but getting there.

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